Pole vaulting into computer science

Kelsey Bueno pole vaulting
WSU pole vaulter Kelsey Bueno takes it a notch higher as she glides over the bar in May 2013 Pac-12 meet. Photo courtesy of WSU Athletics.
Kelsey Bueno on way up
Weight lifting training pays off. Photo by WSU Athletics.
Kelsey Bueno laughter
Bueno enjoys the moment. Photo by WSU Athletics.

PULLMAN, Wash. – When Kelsey Bueno started high school, she thought she would be a wrestler, and when she started college she thought she’d be an architect.

Instead she ended up competing in track in high school, a move that landed her a scholarship to pole vault for WSU – where her leap from architecture to computer science landed her an internship at EMC Isilon, a major data storage company in Seattle.

From wrestling to Pac-12 track

Bueno started wrestling in middle school, and was excited to join the high school team as a freshman. It turned out that her wrestling coach also coached track, and he saw potential in Bueno. When he mentioned this to her she had one major problem with the idea – she hated running.

“He told me I could pole vault and then I’d only have to run one lap with the team, and just jump the rest of the time. Of course it ended up being more running than that, but I discovered I had a knack for pole vaulting and stuck with it,” Bueno said.

Her “knack” was good enough to earn a scholarship to WSU, and fourth place at the Pac-12 competition last year. All while maintaining a 3.5 GPA in computer science courses.

First-generation college student

When Bueno, a first generation college student, came to WSU, computer science was not even a thought in her mind. She started in architecture because it seemed like a good way to be “creative, technical and organized all at once.” Half way through her freshman year though, she decided it wasn’t quite for her, and turned to electrical engineering.

“I liked the idea of taking computers apart to find out how they work, so I thought I’d give electrical a try,” she said.

Code more than 0s and 1s

Electrical engineering curriculum requirements include computer science classes, and in her introductory class Bueno began to understand that coding was much more than 0s and 1s on a computer screen.

“Writing code is kind of like telling a story in a different language,” Bueno said, “before you can start building the program, you have to define the values you’ll be using with a variable the computer will recognize – like defining words and concepts in order to write a story that people understand.”

Much like Bueno’s wrestling coach realized her pole vaulting potential, Adam Carter, the clinical associate professor teaching her computer science class, recognized that Bueno’s organized nature and propensity for problem solving made her a coding natural. He encouraged her to consider the field, and she jumped right in.

“I like that computer science is like a puzzle on the computer. There are a million different ways to make a program and the challenge makes me think critically,” she said.

Support from friends

Even though her days are crammed with track practice, class, weight training and homework, her coding skills have only improved, thanks in part to support from friends she made freshmen year.

“They started in computer science earlier than me and usually have more time to explore concepts and coding outside of class. They’ll go over what they learn with me, and we’ll do homework and study together – it works out really well,” Bueno said.

Internship opportunities 

Last spring she was a teaching assistant for a beginning computer science class, and then landed a summer internship as a software test engineer at EMC Isilon. Her job mostly consisted of making tools that helped the company test products such as search functions and Web interfaces.

“I wish I had applied to other internships sooner, because it was a very educational experience. In class, professors are constantly feeding you tasks and scenarios, but in real life everything happens on the fly. You might get a prompt with a task, but you have to solve it completely from scratch,” she said.

EMC Isilon already offered Bueno an internship next summer, and she is excited to continue getting practical experience.

Even though it keeps her busy, Bueno is happy with her switch to computer science. She often encourages friends who are undecided majors to give it a shot.

“There is more to computer science than people think, and it is worth exploring,” she said.